Sky Mountain Park serves as refuge for wildlife during winter closure
Since it was established in 2012, the 2,500-acre Sky Mountain Park has been off-limits to Roaring Fork recreationists for the roughly five-month stretch from Dec. 1 to mid-May to protect the area’s wintering wildlife.
And for some of that wildlife, the months-long break from people in the park between the Owl Creek and Brush Creek valleys can make all of the difference.
“Sky Mountain Park is definitely a wintering place and production area for elk, so when they’re getting ready to calve it’s important they don’t have that disturbance pushing them,” said Kurtis Tesch, district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the Aspen-Snowmass area.
VALLEY ELK POPULATIONS IN DECLINE
Tesch has worked in the Aspen-Snowmass district for the past four years. Over that time period, he said elk herd populations in the valley, which are part of what’s known as the Avalanche Creek herd, have been on the decline.
According to the most recent Sky Mountain Park wildlife monitoring report, 245 elk and 582 mule deer were detected in the park in 2017.
To help Tesch and CPW researchers better understand the factors contributing to the area’s elk population decline, the state wildlife management agency launched a six-year study of the Avalanche Creek cow elk birth rates and calf survival rates last January, as previously reported.
Tesch said it’s too early to disclose what the study’s data show so far, but said it’s safe to say that the valley’s elk don’t get much of a break from disturbances to their habitat, which can cause detrimental effects to the herd, especially in the winter.
“Just because you see a lot of elk on the valley floor during the winter doesn’t mean that across the landscape they’re doing that great,” Tesch said. “The Sky Mountain Park closure gives animals a chance to avoid disturbances, build up caloric reserves in the winter time and save them for when they give birth so they can provide nutrition to their young throughout the spring.”
If a cow elk is disturbed while calving, Tesch explained, it has to make the decision to sacrifice calories by fleeing the area or by staying put, which can cause it to burn nearly as many calories due to nervousness and anxiety.
Tesch said if the cow experiences too many disturbances and burns too many calories, it could abort its calf to save itself.
“Either way it’s a lose-lose for that animal and it can ultimately lead to the demise of their young,” Tesch said, which he noted is why it’s important disturbance-free wintering areas like Sky Mountain Park exist.
PARK A REFUGE FOR WILDLIFE, RECREATION AREA FOR PEOPLE
Since 1990, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County Open Space, city of Aspen, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Aspen Valley Land Trust have worked to acquire and dedicate the then separate parcels of land that now make up today’s Sky Mountain Park to preserve the landscape and protect wildlife, like elk.
Pitkin County Open Space oversees the management of the open space park — which includes the winter season closure — wildlife and vegetation monitoring and surveys, and the small lottery cow elk hunt.
According to Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the Sky Mountain Park habitat has greatly improved over the past seven years and the goal is to keep the similar management strategies in place to ensure wildlife is protected and great recreational opportunities are accessible.
“Over the next year, year and a half, we will update our management plan, but overall keeping the park a great recreational resource and healthy wildlife habitat is critically important,” Tennenbaum said.
Part of that overarching goal is met through the annual fourth rifle season lottery hunt, which Tennenbaum and Tesch see as both a unique opportunity for hunters and a way to protect the area’s habitat, as the five-person cow elk hunt is the only opportunity to harvest big game in Sky Mountain Park.
This year, John Sobieralski, part of the city of Aspen information technology staff, was the only hunter to fill his cow tag.
Sobieralski said he’s been putting his name in the lottery for the Sky Mountain Park hunt for a few years, but this season was his lucky one in more ways than one.
“I decided to quit and call it a day when I saw the elk, slowly walked in its direction and was able to get a shot off,” Sobieralski said. “It was luck and a real privilege to get picked, but you do have to go out there and put in the work to be successful.”
While Tesch said the annual Sky Mountain Park hunt is a big benefit to valley hunters, he also said it is not being used as a population management strategy, because of the valley’s elk herd declines. In fact, he said some area hunting district elk tag numbers were decreased this hunting season because of lower elk numbers.
Once CPW gathers more data and a better understanding of the Avalanche Creek elk population dynamics, Tesch said new management strategies can be implemented if needed, but that the Sky Mountain Park winter closure is definitely a positive contributor.
“When Sky Mountain Park closes in the winter the elk get a much-needed break from disturbances,” Tesch said. “People just need to be aware that their actions may not have an immediate affect (on elk) but they do in the long run for sure. … Obey those winter closures, they’re in place for a reason.”
The winter Sky Mountain Park closures include the Rim Trail North, Seven Star Trail and Upper North Mesa Equestrian Trail. There is a zero-tolerance policy for closure violations and fines can reach as much as $5,000.
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